Monday, June 6, 2016

What Walter Williams Said...

One correspondent liked this link so much, s/he has shared it twice, wisely guessing that, if I hadn't seen it in Friday afternoon's blog feed, I wasn't likely to scroll back far enough to find it there today.

I did read it on Friday; I had some comments, which I'll post now.

Williams tells it like it is. Student labor jobs aren't...that word that guy used that this web site doesn't use. Student labor jobs are for students, who do them for a year or two and move on. And here's a little secret from a legally White woman, who is old enough to be a grandmother and still gets mistaken for a student, because I still walk like one: When adults are not stuck in student labor jobs as "careers," when adults are pursuing more creative and prestigious "careers," going back and doing a student labor job is getting paid to exercise. If someone who could be doing a job that pays $150 per day is stuck in a job that pays $100 per day, that's a separate problem; it does not mean that we need yet another, even bigger, minimum wage hike that leaves even more people working below the minimum wage or going on welfare.

For young people, there is a learning process in which a student labor job is a new experience, which means learning something worthwhile, which means fun fun fun. I ran into a nephew--not one of mine, one of an old school friend's--on the way home last night. He was delighted to find a classmate, and "all those young kids," working at a fast food place. He was psyched about the hope of getting to flip burgers and bus tables just like his buddy and a lot of cute girls! It reminded me of being seventeen and walking on a cloud because I was finally qualified to sort out cardboard cards in an old wooden card catalogue for $3.35 per hour, four hours a day. Young people who are getting some help from parents and/or schools can afford to revel in this wonderful, special stage of life for a few years. Older people should not be trying to tell them that student labor jobs are, more euphemistically, bad jobs. As long as they have crazy teenage energy to burn off, they're likely to feel better burning it off than being stuck in desk jobs.

For adults, hiring teenagers is really a form of baby-sitting. It used to be known as "apprenticeship," and teenagers have not always enjoyed the rights to change student labor jobs or receive cash wages. They used to be "bound out" and "paid" in room and board, and the rooms used to be tiny and the board used to be scantily set, at that. Crazy teenage energy does get furniture moved fast, but apart from that, you spend so much time teaching teenagers what to do, checking their senses of honesty and work ethics, chaperoning... 

But of course, for those who want the minimum wage raised, the goal is not actually to reduce jobs or sabotage companies. These people, obviously not business owners themselves, are thinking, "Business owners like Ray Kroc are so wealthy, they can afford to share more of the profits with the students." It's about their half-formed, frustrated senses of "equality" rather than their experience as employers, employees, self-employed or unemployed Americans. They're either teenagers, themselves, or speaking from their Inner Teenagers as they grouse, "Why should I (or my kids) have to flip burgers for barely enough money to buy Wal-Mart brand shoes, while Ray Kroc's kids (or grandkids or great-grandkids) undoubtedly draw enough out of their trust funds to buy Topsiders?"

(Not necessarily the hottest expensive style on every campus, but the one I've personally found worth indulging in...those even pricier basketball shoes don't work for my feet at all.)

Their problem is that they've not thought it through. We've lived through a few minimum wage increases. What do they actually produce? Inflation is what they produce--not more equality, but less value for the dollar, higher prices, less shopping, fewer jobs available.

What does it take to produce an equalitarian society where everybody has access to nice stuff? If you're talking about strict equality, there is not, never was, and never will be such a society, except in a super-strict Catholic boarding school, locked psychiatric ward, or higher-than-average-security prison where everybody wears uniforms and nobody's allowed to have anything of his or her own. Even in psychiatric wards and prisons, these days, the usual rule is that people need to be allowed to earn rewards for good behavior. Equal opportunity to earn rewards can, to some extent, be mandated from the top down, although it never has been or will be perfect. Equal rewards aren't going to happen, because some people will always be more willing than other people are to earn more rewards.

Teenagers are not equally valuable employees as experienced workers are. The services of dental hygienists are not equally as valuable to customers as the services of dental surgeons are. The services of factory laborers and of bloggers who mention products are probably more valuable to manufacturers than the services of Madison Avenue advertisers, but it'll take the manufacturers a while to notice that fact. Payment for services rendered has to correlate with the value those who pay place on those services.

It is possible to produce a somewhat less overtly unequal society where rich people are relatively less motivated to spend money on "conspicuous consumption," displays of greed and waste, and more motivated to spend money "to reward good and punish evil." It is possible to motivate rich people to pay those who make and do things for them better, rather than competing against other rich people to drive more impractical cars and hoard more pairs of dysfunctional shoes (after all they don't walk). This has been done, to greater and lesser extents...most noticeably in Arab and allied countries (before oil), and to a lesser extent in some other religious communities.

That goal is accomplished, not by top-down legislation, but by social "selling" rich people on standards of "taste" and "honor," rather than "telling" people what they should have. At the beginning of the twentieth century, although there were shameless greedheads in the English-speaking world, there were also social codes in many separate communities that balanced rich people's tendencies toward greed and waste with an ideal of "tasteful, modest" spending on oneself and generous spending on, and giving to, other people. During the mid-twentieth century, however, an ideal of endless "growth" pushed people toward shameless, trashy, greedy, and wasteful extravagance.

A minority of social communities resisted the craze for extravagance even in the early 1980s. I've described myself as living on an outrageously low, unsustainable income recently, and as having grown up as a poor relation of very rich Americans...but "Virginia's landed poor." The difference that made, in the twentieth century, was that Virginia's landed poor had one of those traditions that curbed extravagance. The "strict, conservative" Protestant churches had one of the others. Islam has another, and has appealed greatly to poor Americans because it does have that traditional ideal of "brotherhood" where rich Muslims are supposed to boost poor Muslims' businesses instead of conspicuously consuming overpriced goods. Mainstream Protestant and Catholic churches used to have one of these traditions, too, but they lost it. Many affluent Americans of my generation tried to reclaim it and make it trendy--that "Bobo" style about which we hear so little in the mass media--but, without a religious or political identity to reinforce "Bobo" taste, I'm not confident that the mindful approach to wealth will be more than a passing fad for my generation, or will be picked up by the young.

I've said before and I'll say again: If Christians don't reclaim our own roots--and this community-centered ideal of spending money modestly on ourselves, and mindfully in order to "reward good and punish evil" among our neighbors--then the Muslims will very likely succeed in making the United States a Muslim nation.

It wasn't just that Malcolm X's hosts didn't seem to judge his color in a hostile, bigoted way. He was pleased and surprised by that when he went to Arabia, but why was he invited to go there in the first place? What had impressed him first was that Black Muslims vigorously supported one another in business, even in North American inner cities. Their loyalty was not just a matter of hugging people's necks and spouting pious words once a week; it was real.

Christians need to keep it real, in that way, too. (Even if you've already read the book, Gentle Readers, I want you to check out that Amazon page. What else do you notice?)

Some of us have actually been brainwashed into thinking that we "shouldn't" work with or do business with people we know socially, because "if it doesn't work out, that might damage our personal relationships with our friends and relatives." Bosh. If we don't support the enterprises of people we know socially, that will damage our personal relationships with those people. The idea of not thinking of the people with whom we do business as friends really originated with feudal snobbery, the idea that those people are and should remain part of an inferior caste with whom we don't socialize.

Huge corporations aren't likely to give up their ideal of having a big, inflexible structure, with huge amounts of monotonous menial jobs that an endless supply of teenagers can be paid the minimum hourly wage to do, any time soon. For those who've put in our time on those jobs, however...far be it from me to suggest that adults shouldn't get paid to exercise, or even that we shouldn't be flattered if people recognize that we can still do jobs that might also be offered to teenagers...but after the crazy teenage energy and the thrill of being paid at all have worn off, there are more interesting, less monotonous jobs in which we can use the skills, talents, and experience that we have and the seventeen-year-olds don't have. They are found in smaller businesses, where moving furniture is an occasional, casual job that may or may not be done by someone who also runs the cash register, cleans the restrooms, buys the merchandise, sets up the displays, and earns a share of or all of the profits, on a schedule that also allows that person to spend quality time with his or her young children. And jobs like that are usually times when smaller businesses aren't struggling to survive the waves of inflation and stagnation that inevitably follow minimum wage increases.

Ray Kroc is not going to share his profits with today's seventeen-year-olds. He wouldn't, even if he were alive. Sam Walton did share his profits with the seventeen-year-olds who worked at Wal-Mart...all of them...and of course we all know how much wealth and power that gives them by now. But your Neighbor John Doe might start a business of which a share of the profits would actually mean something to your seventeen-year-old, by the time your seventeen-year-old is twenty-five--if increasing expenses and regulations didn't force John Doe out of business first.

Real equality does not depend on a bigger, more powerful central authority to enforce top-down orders on a few registered businesses and keep others out of the market. Real equality of opportunity depends on keeping the business world flexible and free.

(If anyone who's read this far doesn't know how this site can scroll all the way down to the bottom of the screen, past the end of this article and the blog feed list and all, and order any Amazon item that is or isn't on this page, directly from this web site. If it's on Amazon but it's not on this web site, you can send an e-mail or postcard to this site's address and order it from this site. That's how this site is meant to pay me. Alternatively you can click on the link and order the item from the seller who originally uploaded the photograph. Amazon claims I'll get a commission on that too, and I'd enjoy very much seeing how that will work. Either way, you're using money mindfully to support small, flexible businesses that offer more than monotonous minimum-wage short-term jobs.)